The Building Blocks of API Partner Programs

03-04-2020

I’m doing a deep dive into partner API research, taking a fresh look at how API providers and service providers are operating their partner programs. I looked through around a hundred partner programs I have indexed, and listed a few of the notable ones below. It can be difficult to study partner API programs because many organizations consider their API program a type of partner program by itself, and then there are also a lot of partner APIs, providing actual services involving partners, providing programmatic access to a variety of partner resources. I’ll be rolling up this research into several other more formal strategies and guides that I will publish as part of API Evangelist, but like I do with all my work I wanted to publish my notes and research here as I’m working through.

Purpose

The reasons behind having a partner program, and what value it brings to an organization and its partners. Providing a list of reasons why you will want to invest in a partner program, and use to sell the concept to other stakeholders.

  • Increase Exposure - Providing more exposure opportunities for platform partners.
  • Increase Skills - Expand upon the skills of partners who are putting a platform to work.
  • Increase Awareness - Grow the awareness amongst partners about what is possible.
  • Increase Sales - Making it about the money, and expanding the sales intake for partners.
  • Drive Communications - Push the platform and its partners to communicate more.
  • Increase Collaboration - Pushing partners to work together, and with the platform more.
  • Encourage Usage - Incentivize more usage of the platform and its products and services.
  • Encourage Adoption - Drive adoption of the platform, pushing partners to depend on it more.
  • Encourage Syndication - Increase the syndication of content and other branded assets.
  • Opportunity for Growth - Allow partners to grow by using the platform more.
  • Protect Users From Unwanted Behavior - Solicit partner assistance to help keep users safe.
  • Protect Platform From Unwanted Behavior - Solicit partner assistance to police bad behavior.
  • Strengthen Brand - Leverage partners to strengthen the platform brand, while building their own.
  • Increase Reciprocity - Thoughtfully balance the value created between platform and partner.
  • Expand Network Reach - Use partners to extend the reach of the platform, and build up each partner.
  • Increase SEO - Work with partners to optimize platform and partner properties on search engines.
  • Standardize Engagements - Keep platform engagements with partners consistent and bearing fruit. 

It helps to establish the purpose of why a platform would want to formalize their partner offering, and investment more in a focused group of API developers. Defining the bar at which developers will need to reach before they can take advantage of more resources and opportunities when it comes to putting a platform to work. 

On-Boarding

There were some pretty clear building blocks for on-boarding partners as part of a formal API partner program, helping educate interested parties in what the program is all about, and how you can go from learning about it to participating in as few steps as possible.

  • Subdomain - Use a dedicated domain or sub-domain for partner program.
  • Overview - Provide a concise and simple overview of what the partner program is.
  • Getting Started - Offer up simple steps for how someone can sign up for the program.
  • Sign-Up Form - Have an easy to find form available for signing up for the program.
  • Contact Info - Make contact information for the partner program easy to find.

Making it easy for interested parties to on-board with as little friction as possible, while standardizing the information and process around the partner program helps ensure an API partner program offering value to both the platform and the partners, ensuring everyone is happy.

Access

Some API partner programs are just one level of access, but there are numerous examples of multi-tiered partner programs, and specialty types of access associated with leading API partner platforms. Demonstrating there isn’t one way of defining partnerships, and platforms should consider what the proper levels of access for their platforms, meeting the needs of their organization and partners.

  • Program Tiers - Offering multiple levels of access with details of each tier.
  • Early Access to APIs - Providing early access to APIs being developed.
  • Early Access to New Features - Offering up early access to new features.
  • Early Access to Road Map - Giving partners early look at what is on the road map.
  • Partner Only APIs - Providing APIs that are specifically available for partners.
  • Community - Allowing different levels of access to the platform community for partners.
  • Demo Accounts - Making demo accounts available for partners to put to use.
  • Sandbox - Dedicated sandboxes available for partners to develop against.

Different levels of access allow for multiple bars to exist for API developers to rise to, allowing them to determine where they fit into the operations of a platform. While providing a common template and processes for how partnerships are handled, ensuring consistency and reliability across how partner relationships are managed.

Education 

Taking a look at what is needed to help educate interested parties about what the partner program is, helping them make sense of the value that is available when they step up and work with a platform. Making sure there are self-service, and other educational resources available for all partners, and potential partners.

  • Guide - A PDF guide to the partner program, providing a portable overview of how the platform works.
  • Benefits - Providing the details about the benefits to partners, as well as the platform, for easy consumption.
  • Training - Invest in the proper amount of training resources to ensure partner learn what is needed when partnering.

Crafting education materials helps platforms work through the details of a program, and make it available in a way that can be easily accessed and consumed by interested parties. Carefully crafted education materials helps further stabilize the relationship between platform and partners, laying a good foundation for what can be expected.

Business

Moving beyond the purpose, on-boarding, access, and education, these are some of the more business elements of doing an API partner program. Defining the direct business elements that can define and incentivize the desired behavior across platform partners, and not missing a beat when it comes to the real world value behind doing an API partner program.

  • Fees - Require partners to pay feeds for applying, processing, certification, and other partner costs.
  • Discounts - Offering discounts to partners when it comes to purchasing products and services.
  • Deals - Making business deals available to partners, bringing businesses to their doorstep.
  • Funding - Providing funding and investment for partners to take advantage of when it comes to their projects.
  • Grants - Offering grant funds for certain types of educational, research, and non-profit platform projects.
  • Incubator - Establishing an incubator program that is available for partners to enter their projects into.
  • Accelerator - Making an accelerator program available for helping increase the momentum of partner projects.
  • Resell - Allowing partners to resell products and services and generate revenue when purchases are made.
  • Affiliate - Offering a percentage a sale to customers when traffic generates engagement that leads to sales.

Every API partner program ultimately is in service of increasing the bottom line of both the platform and partners, so it makes sense to have a clear definition for how revenue opportunities are providing both directions. Making it obvious the real world value that can be created for everyone involved with making an API partner platform work.

Innovation

Building on the business of an API platform, there are several ways API providers are injecting innovation into the partner discussion via their platforms. Providing additional building blocks for other API providers to consider when they are crafting and expanding on their API partner programs, making sure they help a platform quickly innovate.

  • Innovation Ideas - Publishing a list of ideas that partners can consider when it comes to putting a platform to work.
  • Labs Environment - Providing a lab that partners can use to help stimulate their usage of the platform and resources.
  • Proof of Concept (POC) Program - Providing an official program for giving birth to POC, and possibly moving them ahead.

Innovation is the life blood of API-driven platforms, and should also be partner of the partner layers of a platform, providing ways in which partners can do new and interesting things. Ensuring there is resources, investment, and support from the platform when it comes to lighting the fire under the imagination of platform partners.

Exposure

Most partners are looking for exposure as part of the operations of a platform, extending their reach, and expanding the potential customers they have access to. There are a number of building blocks that API providers are using to increase the surface area of their API partner programs, and give partners more opportunities to be seen.

  • Showcase - Regularly showcasing partners across a website, developer area, and other platform properties.
  • Directory - Providing a directory of partners for other platform stakeholders to use to find trusted resources.
  • Integrations - Publishing a list of partner integrations available for platform consumers to put to work.
  • Marketplace - Having a marketplace of applications that are relevant to a platform, showcasing partner apps.

Exposure is critical to the success of an API platform. Partners need exposure to feel they are getting value from the relationship, and it helps strengthen the overall awareness and perception of what a platform’s API partner program is all about—elevating the presence of the partner program, and the partners who are participating in the program. 

Marketing

There are a handful of marketing centered building blocks present across many API partner programs. Helping bring alignment between the platform and partner marketing efforts by providing resources that partners can take advantage of. Providing consistency of message and outreach when it comes to how a platform, and the applications integrations are marketed across an industry.

  • Co-Marketing - Offering co-marketing services and resources for partners to take advantage of.
  • Marketing Toolkit - Deliver self-service marketing resources in the form of a toolkit for partners.
  • Go To Market Kits - Establishing an official go to market strategy for partner to use when launching apps and integrations.
  • Representative - providing a dedicated marketing representative for a platform to help guide partner efforts.

Providing marketing resources is a critical set of alignment dials that an API provider can turn to dial in the marketing of the platform, and the apps and integrations that partner provides. Extending the reach of platform marketing while also giving partners a stronger voice when it comes to marketing their own solutions built on top of a platform.

Branding

Augmenting marketing it is important to provide API partners with a wealth of assets they can use to reflect the platform’s brand in a healthy way. There are a number of building blocks employed by API providers when it comes to standardizing that partners represent a platform in their own content, marketing, and outreach—helping keep things consistent.

  • Images / Logos - Providing an official set of images and logos for use by partners.
  • Content - Publishing partner specific content that helps them represent the platform.
  • Embeddable - Providing a suite of embeddable buttons, badges, and widgets for a platform.
  • Toolkit - Crafting a complete branding toolkit that walks partners through platform branding.

Offering standardized partner branding resources for a platform helps consistently represent a platform across many domains, but also helps make the program more precise in how it reaches and speaks to consumers. Establishing a common way to represent apps, integrations, and other solutions that are developed on top of a platform.

Communications

Turning up the volume on communications, both on platform and off, is an essential nutrient of any API partner platform. Leveraging a pretty large list of channels in which a platform can communicate about partners, and partners can communicate about the applications and integrations they have developed using a platform—amplifying everyone involved, and bringing more attention to the interesting things going on.

  • News - Publishing of news that involves a platform and what a partner is delivering.
  • Blog - Publishing of blog posts that involves a platform and what a partner is delivering.
  • Newsletter - Including details of a platform and partner activity via existing newsletters.
  • Webinars - Providing webinars that involves a platform and what a partner is delivering.
  • Videos - Publishing videos that showcase a platform and what a partner is delivering.
  • Slack Channel - Establishing a dedicated slack channel for platform and partner communication.
  • Twitter - Tweeting about what is happening on a platform, and the cool things partners build.
  • Facebook - Publishing to Facebook when interesting things occur on a platform involving partners.
  • YouTube - Providing a regular stream of videos via Youtube about a platform and partner activity.
  • Instagram - Publishing images and stories to Instagram about a platform and partner activity.
  • LinkedIn - Publishing to LinkedIn when interesting things occur on a platform involving partners.
  • GitHub - Making partner platform projects available via GitHub as open source offerings.
  • Interviews - Conducting regular interviews with platform partners and sharing them with the community.
  • Case Studies - Crafting case studies that highlight what partners are building on top of a platform.
  • Testimonials - Capturing regular testimonials from partners helping gather the experience of partners.
  • Office Hours - Holding office hours for partners, allowing for further discussions around the platform.

Healthy communication as part of platform partner activity is essential to a successful API partner platform. Without it, both sides will not receive value from the relationship. The number of channels available will depend on the resources a platform has, but every API provider should consider at least a handful of these communication channels when it comes to defining their API partner program.

Events

Events are a great way to get partners involved, and providing them with additional exposure opportunities as part of regular platform gatherings. There are a few building blocks employed by leading API providers when it comes to sweetie the partner pot with opportunities to participate in events, strengthening the platform and partner relationship.

  • Speaking - Offering partners opportunities to speak at events, and be part of the in-person conversation.
  • Sponsorship - Establishing event sponsorship opportunities for partners to invest in platform events.
  • Exhibition - Expanding to offer up exhibit opportunities for partners to showcase their wares at an event.

Events are an opportunity for the platform partner relationship to move offline and establish more trust, while expanding the exposure partners will get. Helping strengthen how partners engage with a platform, and expanding the value being generated for the end customer, but also partners and the platform that is the foundation for everything that is occurring.

Support

Partners will need support as part of their on-boarding process, and throughout their platform journey. There are numerous proven support channels that API providers are using that can be easily extended to partners, providing them with preferred support channels. Ensuring that partners have what they need, and can get assistance whenever it is needed.

  • Email - Making sure there is an email for partners to use to get support.
  • Phone - Publishing a phone number that partners can call to get help.
  • Paid - Allowing partners to pay for premium support via a platform.
  • Ticketing - Provide the ability for partners to submit a ticket to get help.
  • Representative - Provide a dedicated support representative for partners.
  • Executive Sponsor - Offer a dedicated executive sponsor for partners.
  • FAQ - Publish a list of FAQs to answer many of the common questions.
  • Road Map Review - Provide dedicated resources to help partners with their road map.
  • Community - Provide dedicated community support for partners needs.

Support will define the partner experience. If partners feel supported they will continue to generate value for a platform. If partners feel alone in their platform journey, the partnership won’t mean much to them. The strength of these support mechanisms will set the tone for partnership on any platform, revealing the strength or weakness of everyone involved.

Platform

Partners need a dedicated layer of the platform tailored to their needs, providing the building blocks they will need to manage their applications, integrations, and quantify their overall engagement. There are common ways to extend personalized platform resources for partners to take advantage of, offering up tailored services and features via dedicated private spaces.

  • Portal - Providing a dedicated portal for partners to access information and resources.
  • Login - Requiring partners to login and fully access the resources being made available.
  • Account - Allow partners to manage the details of their account via a platform login.
  • Dashboard - Providing a dashboard that gives partners visibility into their engagement. 
  • Analytics - Make meaningful analytics available to help partners understand their activity.
  • Sandbox - Establish a dedicated API sandbox for partners to take advantage of.

The amount of resources available to partners, combined with real time visibility into their platform engagement will keep partners coming back and staying active and engaged. This section is about giving partners their own little slice of a platform to make them feel like they are part of the action, incentivizing them along the way to always do more.

Observability

Measuring the activity of an API partner program using available outputs is a critical part of providing the observability needed to understand, drive, and direct partner activity and engagement. There are a handful of ways in which API providers are making their platforms more observable to all stakeholders involved in moving the platform, and the integrations and applications are built on them forward.

  • Activity Reports - Publish regular activity reports about all the partner actions that are occurring.
  • Progress Reports - Provide progress reports for partners, as well as the platform when it comes to meeting obligations.
  • Ranking - Establish a ranking system for partners, helping understand the scope and quality of engagement.
  • Governance - Ensure that the partner program is regularly being measured, audited, and understood for value.

Observability is all about being aware of what is happening with partner activity. Ensuring that everyone can see what is going on, and the activity that is occurring is in alignment with the purpose of the partner program, and making sure that there is reciprocity between the platform and the partners who have stepped up to participate in the program.

Accreditation:

Once a partner is on-boarded, there should be additional tracks for further ensuring the quality and intent of partners. Helping establish solid benchmarks for what is expected of partners, and making sure it is clear to the platform and the community that partners are of a higher quality when it comes to providing applications, integrations, and other services.

  • Verification - Formally verifying that partners are real, and have the best interests of the platform in mind.
  • Certification - Establish a certification process around specific platform needs, certifying partners deliver value.
  • Badging - Offer up an official badge for partners to display on their website and applications built on a platform.

Accreditation provides a process and mechanisms for the platform community to understand who the sanctioned partners are, providing a wealth of services, tooling, and other resources they can confidently put to work. Raising the quality of engagements beyond the partner program, making sure end-user’s needs are met, while keeping everything in alignment with platform objectives.

Types of Partners

While reviewing different API provider partner programs there were a number of different types of partners present4ed. Offering a look at different ways in which APIs are partnering with their community. Demonstrating that there isn’t just one way in which you can partner with other companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies.

  • Developer - The most common layer of developer engagement, while still raising the quality bar.
  • Agency - Providing an opportunity for agencies to partner and deliver value to platform users.
  • Consulting - Encouraging consultants to become partners and fulfill services the platforms needs.
  • Technology - Allow technology providers to offer their solutions as part of a platform.
  • Integration - Showcasing partners who have established platform integration that offer users value.
  • Franchises - Allow partners to franchise the API platform model and offer as part of their business.
  • Reseller - Allow partners to resell products and services to generate revenue as part of their operations.
  • Affiliates - Allow partners to generate revenue from inbound traffic they send which converts into sales.
  • White Label - Offer white or private label offerings that partners can offer seamlessly as part of their operations.
  • Academic - Establish partner opportunities for academic institutions, offering them tailored engagements.
  • Non-Profit - Establish partner opportunities for non-profit and NGO groups to put the platform to work.
  • Government - Establish partnership opportunities that offer platform resources to government agencies.

Many API providers just have a single type of partner, but these additional types offer a look at the opportunities to expand in the future as a platform gets its footing with its partner program. Depending on the type of services being offered, each of these areas can represent a new way to look at how services can be made available to an entirely new audience.

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Requirements

There were also some requirements present for a handful of the API providers I looked at as part of this research. I thought it was an interesting way to set the bar for partners, ensuring the quality of the partner program, and what is offered to the community. There were some really interesting ways in which platforms governed who could step up and achieve partner status for a platform.

  • Plan - Partners must have a plan in place that outlines what they will be doing on a platform.
  • Dedicated Human Resources - Partners must provide a dedicated person to manage relationships.
  • Dedicated Training Resources - Partners must be ready to offer dedicated training resources.
  • Managed Service Offering - Partners will be required to offer a managed service as part of their engagement.
  • Lead Requirements - Partners must generate a certain amount of leads to maintain their partner status.
  • Revenue Requirements - Partners must generate a certain amount of revenue for their platform to maintain status.

Partner program requirements are a great way to raise the bar when it comes to what is expected of partners. Ensuring that partners are of the highest quality, filtering out the organizations who might not be ready to meet platform standards. Requiring everyone involved in the partner program take its engagement with the platform more seriously. 

Leading API Partner Programs

I looked through well over a hundred API provider partner programs and I filtered the less than exciting examples, leaving a list of API providers who are at least doing something worthwhile as part of their official partner offerings. Providing me with all the building blocks I extracted as part of this research. Building upon what is already occurring across the sector, and providing a list of building blocks that other API providers might want to consider as part of their partner strategy.

Crafting the Most Effective API Partner Program

I am taking this research and weaving it into my work at Postman. Like the other stops along the API life cycle I am looking to learn from what is happening across the API space, find the common building blocks and patterns, and load them up in my brain for use in workshops, strategy, and conversation I am having with enterprise groups looking to expand their platforms. While not every API provider should be applying all of these building blocks, the list does provide a comprehensive view at the building blocks in use across providers. Allowing anyone to cherry pick what would work for their platform. I will take this list and use it across my other work, offering up more refined strategies for API providers based upon their needs and objectives, regularly using this list to refine what I'm proposing, but also help remind me to regularly pause and take a look at what other API providers are doing when it comes to their partner programs.

API providers who have an established partner program as part of their API offerings demonstrate that they are further along in their API journey. They have identified that they need more quality control gates on their API program, allowing developers till up the intake funnel for their platform, while ensuring you identify what is required of developers before they can receive more investment, exposure, and reach when it comes to what is happening on a platform. Establishing a process for raising the bar for what gets built on a platform, and the overall value of the applications and integrations developers are delivering. Increasing not just the availability of high quality services, applications, tooling, and integrations, but also the overall reach and scope of what a platform can do. Leveraging partners to help join in ensuring an API platform is living up to its full potential and meeting the needs of its users.